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Saints’ three-headed monster at running back taking shape

Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and Alvin Kamara present a lot of good options in the New Orleans Saints’ backfield. Fortunately, this is somewhere we’ve been before.

SAN DIEGO, CA - New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) celebrates a touchdown run against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
SAN DIEGO, CA - New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram (22) celebrates a touchdown run against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium.
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram had a great 2016 season as the lead back in a loaded offense, matching the pace of Dallas Cowboys rookie sensation Ezekiel Elliott in yards gained per carry (5.1) and hitting the 1,000-yards rushing mark for the first time in his career. Expectations were high that the just-27-years old Ingram would find similar success in 2017.

Some analysts and fans saw those hopes trashed when the Saints signed Adrian Peterson in free agency. Peterson is a future Pro Football Hall of Fame member and longtime lead back for the Minnesota Vikings, so it’s understandable for observers around the NFL to question what Ingram’s role looks like with Peterson on board.

What’s inexcusable is the pushback on the Saints drafting Tennessee Volunteers running back Alvin Kamara, spending their 2017 seventh round pick (usually spent on a player with slim odds of making the final roster) in order to use their 2018 second round pick a year early. Kamara was a player the Saints considered at the 42nd-overall selection, ultimately going with Utah Utes free safety Marcus Williams first.

Now with Kamara and Peterson in the fold, writers all over the NFL community are pulling their hair out trying to figure out what happens to Mark Ingram. Will he be released to save salary cap space (No, he will not)? Will he be traded for Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce (No, probably not)? How on Earth will the Saints, pass-happy as any team around the league, feed all three running backs?

It’s almost like nobody has been paying attention. The Saints were at their best in 2011 when they platooned Ingram with Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory. That four-deep rotation followed the mold cast in 2009 with Mike Bell, Reggie Bush, and Lynell Hamilton joining Thomas in the backfield. Saints head coach Sean Payton, much like New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, values a deep stockpile of running backs.

CLEVELAND, OH - Former New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) evades a tackle by Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Billy Winn (90) at FirstEnergy Stadium.
CLEVELAND, OH - Former New Orleans Saints running back Pierre Thomas (23) evades a tackle by Cleveland Browns defensive lineman Billy Winn (90) at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Let’s get a couple of quick things out of the way: the Saints are nearly in line with the NFL average in rushing attempts per game over the past few years. Let’s check the numbers (all stats courtesy of

  • 2016: Saints averaged 25.3 carries per game, NFL averaged 26.0
  • 2015: Saints averaged 24.8 carries per game, NFL averaged 26.3
  • 2014: Saints averaged 25.4 carries per game, NFL averaged 26.7
  • 2013: Saints averaged 24.4 carries per game, NFL averaged 27.1

The NFL as a whole is less-reliant on the run than it was four years ago, meaning defenses are playing more nickel personnel and often trotting out five defensive backs. That leaves just six or seven defenders in the box on any given down, which is great news for a team retooling for a stronger run-based attack. The Saints’ moves in acquiring Peterson and Kamara, retaining bruising fullback and short-yardage sure-thing John Kuhn, as well as some violent offensive linemen between Detroit Lions veteran Larry Warford and Wisconsin Badgers rookie Ryan Ramczyk, suggest that’s the direction they’re going.

Teams are planning for an air raid-style passing attack when Payton is really setting them up for a smashmouth ground assault. If he and quarterback Drew Brees can ignore their worst instincts and shy away from dialing up 40 pass attempts per game, it could pay back huge dividends.

But back to my point: any way you slice it, the Saints will probably have about 25 rushing attempts to work with. Hopefully more, but that seems to be the starting point. Let’s look at how those carries were divided between last year’s running back group:

  • Ingram averaged thirteen carries per game
  • Tim Hightower, now signed by the San Francisco 49ers, averaged eight carries per game
  • Daniel Lasco, limited by a lingering hamstring strain, averaged less than two carries per game
  • Kuhn and Cadet each averaged about one carry per game

So now the Saints are trotting out an upgraded version of the same player archetypes. Strictly from a rushing attempts angle, not much changes. Ingram remains the point man and will see the bulk of carries. Hightower has been replaced by Peterson, and may see a slight uptick in touches given his big-play potential. Kamara thankfully erases Cadet and pushes Lasco into a full-time role on special teams, and Kuhn is still your goal-line back of choice.

At first glance, expecting your rookie running back - essentially a second round draft pick - to see just three carries per game is alarming. It makes sense that people who haven’t been paying attention would rant and rail against it. Where things get interesting is the passing game; Kamara should see at least four passes thrown his way a game, and he’s someone Payton can draw up creative plans with.

For the first time in almost a decade, none of the Saints’ running backs averaged more than 20 receiving yards per game. That element of the offense was missing badly against teams with fast defenses that could stand up to the receivers like the Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos, New York Giants, and so on. With Kamara in the fold, teams will have to recognize the threat of designed screens, outside zone tosses, and other unique plays. It re-opens a part of the offense that hasn’t really been seen since Darren Sproles was in town.

What’s more is that Kamara won’t just be a passing-down threat like Cadet and, at times, even Sproles were. He’s more like Pierre Thomas as someone who can ably take handoffs and pick up yards on the ground while also dominating as a receiver. Unlike with other backs before him, opposing defenses won’t know that a passing play is coming just because Kamara checks into the game.

The bottom line: Ingram, Peterson, and Kamara can each coexist in their own clearly-defined roles. One presence doesn’t threaten the others, and as Adam Schefter reported, there’s ‘absolutely nothing’ to suggest the Saints are interested in dealing Ingram after putting so many resources into their running attack on offense.